NJD: The first thing I always notice when I open a new C Joynes album is that it always looks like a very personal art concept on your records.
CJ: Yeah, definitely. It’s one of the things that I’ve always really enjoyed. For me it’s always been part of the whole process – it’s included artwork and design and all of that sort of thing. I’ve always really liked albums that are put together and presented in a way where it looks like a hermetically sealed concept – where it’s stuff that’s been produced by one person or a very limited group of people. For example, all the self-released Sun Ra albums, I just love the artwork and graphics on those. Also the stuff that Billy Childish put out when he was self-releasing his own stuff. So right from the get go that’s always, I don’t know how essential it is to the music but it’s all part of the process of putting together an album.
NJD: Is this album called Congo because that’s somewhere that you’ve visited?
No. There’s a statue that appears on the cover of the album, and the statue was christened Congo. It was given to me as a gift when I was in Kenya. The little statue does actually come from the Congo and he’s been sitting on top of the right hand speaker of my hi-fi system all the way through the mixing process. There’s a little sphinx that someone gave my wife as a gift on the left hand channel and Congo on the right hand channel, and the pair have been kind of like the totems for this album, kind of overseeing the whole thing. It’s got something about it, a real personality. I’m always a little bit suspicious about “concepts”, but it’s definitely contributed to what I see as an underlying theme to this album. It’s the notion of this very distinctive totem that has come from a very different and very unusual part of the world and ended up in this little cottage outside of Cambridge. If there is a concept it’s about the exotic in a small, domestic traditional English setting – the kind of clash of cultures that’s going on there.
NJD: Travel’s something that you’ve done a great deal. Please tell me about your travels, and the influences they’ve had on you.
The travelling has come about through work, my job has taken me overseas. There’s quite a range of ways in which the influence happens. Most directly, you find yourself exposed to new musics and unusual music when you’re listening to the radio or you go down the market and you buy a bunch of cassettes, that sort of thing. But I think there’s also something less obvious about it. I think when you find yourself in an unusual setting, your senses are very much heightened and you’re taking in an awful lot of new stuff. If you’re a musician I think inevitably you’re going to respond to this in some sort of way. When I find myself in a particular place, I do find that I’ll be writing a tune or the way in which I’ll play a previously written tune will change or alter, in order to try and describe the response that I have to the setting. From a much more pragmatic point of view, usually I go overseas for four to six weeks at a time. I’m staying in an apartment on my own or I’m staying in a hotel room and once the working day is over you’ve got a lot of time on your hands – and I play a lot of guitar. So most of the tunes that appear on this album were written overseas, on these longish sabbaticals where I had nothing to do except think about music and write new stuff.
NJD: One of the bands that really sprung to mind when I was listening to Congo was the Incredible String Band. There’s something about the arrangements, and the way that the choice of instrumentation is different on each piece. Also there’s a very far-reaching choice of instruments. Are the Incredible String Band a touchstone for you?
Yeah, definitely. I wouldn’t say explicitly on this album, I didn’t feel like the stuff that I was writing was strongly influenced by that, but The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is one of my favourite albums. It’s totally great – it’s one of those albums that I’ll listen to once every couple of years, you go back to it and hear it again and think “Oh, this is so good!” and that’s enough, it kind of sustains you. I was listening to it last year and that’s actually a good point, it’s not something I’d consciously recognised. One of the things that I like about that album in particular is that there are all these instruments on it, but you get the sense that they’re not really too sure how to play them, but what they’re getting out of them is a kind of sound colour, a bit of tonal colour, just fuck it, they’ll put it in there! And that definitely did happen on this album.
NJD: Yeah, there’s harmonium, kalimba, fiddle, even some double bass on the opener there…
Yeah, there were four or five musicians who contributed to it separately. I had a crazy year last year, there was all sorts of stuff going on and as part of this I went through a kind of early mid-life crisis. But rather than going and buying a sports car or whatever I went a bit nuts on eBay, and just bought loads of new instruments. So I got a harmonium, a viola, a handful of African percussion instruments, I even made an electric mbira out of some bicycle spokes, a tin of varnish and a contact mic! There was a lot of that sort of stuff going on – I got this stuff and I wanted to use it.
I was also quite keen to move away from an album that was purely a guitar album as well. There were some additional instruments on the previous album, Revenants, Prodigies and the Restless Dead but it felt to me listening to it after the fact, like very much a guitar-led album. It also felt like, maybe not introspective but quite an isolated album. And I think what I really wanted to do with this album was to have something a lot less introspective and a lot more kind of socially orientated. That I think is what makes this album a lot different from the last album. The previous album I felt was a little bit melancholic as well, and what I want to do is be a bit more cheerful!
NJD: It’s kind of tough on solo acoustic guitar- there’s a melancholy drive that can come from playing in a solitary way.
Absolutely, and it can be a very introspective thing as well. Both the act of writing and playing is a solitary act. It’s not like being in a band where you’re kind of bouncing ideas off of other people. And I think you’re right, the music itself kind of lends itself to introspection. There’s no words there, you’re not explaining anything to people. You’re writing something which expresses something unspoken within you. It’s inevitable that that happens with solo acoustic guitar.
NJD: You’ve described your recording techniques to me, and it’s very simple. You’re not going into a studio, but on this album you’ve got multiple other instruments. What were the sessions like?
With the exceptions of the contributions from other people, all of it was recorded at home, all of it recorded one track at a time on minidisc. I would get the guitar track finished and then try out stuff using other instruments and working out bits and pieces. And what would happen was that over the course of time I would accumulate track after track after track of different instruments, and they were all recorded pretty much in isolation – that’s to say without listening, other than using the guitar track. Then afterwards you got this whole jumble of different stuff, and it was a case of trying to piece it all together. It was a very time consuming process, and it was in many respects a total ballsache! But it was also very interesting as well.
Once the stuff was recorded and I was starting to put it together, there was a lot of other music that I was listening to that was influencing the way I wanted to mix things. A few years ago, I listened almost exclusively to dub and reggae, and this time around I went back and relistened very closely to a few of my favourite dub albums. There was Super Ape by Scratch Perry and the Upsetters, it’s incredible. Such a kind of woody, organic sounding album, it’s just so great! There was also Scientist Rids the World of the Curse of the Vampires – such a great title! – really great late 70s, early 80s pre-digital dub. Things like that were influencing the way I was mixing the album and putting things together, I had all of these instruments and it was a case of figuring out how I could drop them in and drop them out at different points without it just becoming a total, total mess.
Last year, as well as the Incredible String Band I was listening to a lot of jazz, a lot of John Coltrane, particularly mid-period Coltrane. Two or three recordings that really stood out for me. One was a big band recording called “Africa Brass”, and what I really liked about that was that he had two bass players going on and the sound of the bass was just great. And I also got a bunch of the Live at the Village Vanguard – The Complete Concerts. He put out an album I love in 1962 gleaned from four concerts, but the full concerts they come from are just incredible. It’s from when he was just starting to mix things up a bit. There’s one evening where he’s got a musician playing I think it’s a veena in the background. There’s another where as well as the quartet he’s got Eric Dolphy sitting in on bass clarinet and just doing incredible low end stuff. And those recordings in particular influenced two or three of the tracks very, very strongly, both the way they was arranged and the kind of feel I wanted to get out of them.
NJD: Which tracks were those?
There was “Georgie”, which is a version of a trad English tune. On the actual recording itself there’s the basic structure of the trad tune and the basic melody, but the way in which the guitar plays is a lot freer and there’s a lot of improvising in there. Also my friend Simon Loynes is playing an instrument, he’s not sure where it comes from, somewhere in South East Asia he thinks, it’s called a tarang. And he’s playing that on that particular track, and that was very strongly influenced by the recordings of this John Coltrane concert. The funny thing about “Georgie” is that there I was doing the guitar arrangements and then getting Simon in afterwards to do the drone arrangements, and in my mind I was like “Yes, this is it! This is what the John Coltrane Quartet would sound like if they played acoustic guitar!” And of course now what it sounds like is the Velvet Underground! That’s also fine, I love the Velvets but it’s funny how you start off with something in your mind about “This is what this is!” and the net result goes full circle, you know?
NJD: The other thing I wanted to ask about was the relationship between the “Stout Mr Jemmy Hurst” track on this album and the “Jemmy Steel” track, which was on the last Imaginational Anthem compilation.
In fact the guitar part is exactly the same. It’s a piece that I wrote because, well I try and do this on every album: I listen to an awful lot of trad English folk field recordings, Morris dance tunes and that sort of thing. And I really, really like this stuff. Obviously there’s a lot of traditional tunes around that you could do, but I love the idea of trying to write something that maybe one day someone else will pick up on, I love the idea of becoming part of the folk or morris dance repertoire! And this was another one of those tunes that was very much written with that in mind. So on “Jemmy Steel” the guitar is playing exactly the same as on “Stout Mr Jemmy Hurst” but one version is solo steel-string guitar, the other version is like a nylon guitar with harmonium, viola, some percussion and other things going on. I have a friend who plays a lot of trad English stuff with his daughter, he plays the melodeon and she plays the tuba, and originally I was hoping they would do a kind of melodeon and tuba accompaniment. I would love to hear that tune arranged for melodeon and tuba!
NJD: Maybe next album! When is the record coming out?
It’s going to be on Bo ‘Weavil. It will be on LP, CD and download which is great, and it will be likely to be October/November 2011. As you know, the baby’s coming along so if there is to be a tour, it will be after Christmas.
With congratulations to Chris, and his wife Usha, on the arrival of their son William, born very shortly after this interview took place.
C Joynes plays the Portland Arms in Cambridge on December 7, 2011 with Daniel Higgs and Padang Food Tigers.